EDITORIAL: Get out your pencils

THIS IS A TEST. The subject is math. You, over there, sit down and stop groaning. First question: If John and Jane leave for school at the same time headed in opposite directions, how long will it take before county taxpayers spend $165 million?

News stories last week uncovered state exams with multiple choice questions that had no correct answer or, in some cases, more than one correct choice. But my question does have a right answer. If you said “One year,” you get a gold star. That $165-million figure represents, roughly, the total amount public school districts in Columbia County have proposed spending over the next school year.

Tuesday, May 15, people here and across the state will cast ballots to determine the fate of their annual school budget. School taxes account for the largest share of our property tax bill, and this year taxpayers in the county are being asked to shoulder a total public school tax levy of nearly $80 million. The rest of the money for education comes mostly from the state.

Second question: Wait a minute! Didn’t the state impose cap of 2% on property tax increases? Test makers at the state Education Department take note; there are three correct answers to this question, “Yes,” “No” and “Kind of.”

“No” is correct because the law allows voters to approve a tax increase greater than 2% if more than 60% of voters approve it. “Kind of” is correct because the state recognized that there are some financial obligations school districts cannot control, so exemptions give districts an extra half percent or so of wiggle room before the tax cap kicks in. “Yes” is correct because the tax cap is working.

Districts here have kept a lid on costs. The proof lies in the fact that this year the total of the tax levies sought by all local districts is $17 million less than the year before. Only one district, Germantown, has proposed a budget that exceeds the cap. The average increase countywide is 2.4%; New Lebanon taxpayers won’t see any increase.

Last year, before the tax cap took effect, two school boards–Ichabod Crane and Hudson–adopted budget proposals that were well above the rate of inflation. Both proposals were defeated at the polls. This year those two districts have stayed within the limits of the cap.

The Germantown board and administration are betting that voters will accept the pain to reap the benefits of a 5.2% increase in taxes. Perhaps they are right. The district has actually reduced spending compared to last year, and the proposal would make deep cuts despite the increase. Hanging over the discussion is the possibility that if the proposal does not draw the support of 60% of voters next Tuesday, the board could adopt a contingency budget that would not reduce taxes much but would gut some school programs.

The math tells the story. The school boards and administrators of all the school districts in Columbia County, including Germantown, have held up their end of the bargain. They have reduced spending, found efficiencies and looked seriously at long-term ways to save taxpayers money while still providing a quality education. They have achieved this with no meaningful relief from the state from their most expensive burdens. Don’t punish school districts for doing the right things. That sends a terrible message to our schools and our kids. The right answer Tuesday is Yes on the budget.

 

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